Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where it all begins

Some Merry Looking Toronto Victorian Row Houses

I suppose this is another one of those blog entries that is just a self-serving form of automatic writing. I'm not really offering you, the reader, any instruction, information or entertainment. Instead, I'm just thinking out loud...then converting these 'out loud thoughts' into type face. Feel free to click away. If not, allow me to proceed.

A few months ago in a second-hand shop, I stumbled across a Victorian-era cookbook. Published in the 1870's, this thin and unobtrusive book with the rather long-winded title, "The Canadian Home Cook Book, compiled by the Ladies of Toronto and chief cities and towns in Canada" largely consists of recipes written by local women. Each recipe is credited to the woman who wrote it, for example 'Tea Cakes, submitted by Mrs. J.W. Patton'. I couldn't help but smile whilst perusing through this utterly quaint and delightful book. How different our world is today! The recipes in this book also surprised me. There are many recipes for Indian curries, which all but disappear from Canada's culinary lexicon for decades thereafter. Yet, a century later in the 1970's, large waves of immigrants from South East Asia 're-introduced' us to this delicious and spicy style of cooking.  Also fascinating was the fact that although the vast majority of the dishes are British-inspired, the book is liberally peppered with American recipes, often from the deep south. This book was written in 1877, so this would have been only  a short time removed from the fabled underground railroad. Perhaps the escaped American slaves brought their influences with them. I found recipes for Succotash, 'Southern' boiled rice, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, white gravy and gumbo - in Toronto no less! It's interesting to note that local foodies appear to have just discovered southern American cuisine.

Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from this. It is important to know our culinary roots. Especially in Canada, for which there are very few things to pin down as our own. The dishes from this old cookbook represent a modest representation of my region. They are not necessarily good dishes, but they are a good starting point. 

I suppose this train of thought has largely to do with the fact that from now on, food will no longer be just what's for dinner, but will represent my livelihood. I have not finished the paper work, nor have I quite yet received the key to the front door, but I am well on my way. Because of this, I have been putting more thought than usual into the process of creating recipes, writing menus and contemplating my clientele.

The transcendental nitty gritty of converting raw ingredients into delicious food is a wondrous harmony of art, science and the human senses.  And just like any artistic pursuit, one will find that there are traditions within which to work, or at the very least, traditions from which to draw upon. No act of creativity exists in a vacuum, and likewise, no recipe arises from nothing. 

With this in mind, I am presently in the process of developing a food concept and a menu for which I hope the public may find some delight. I am trying to grasp the common lineage that will weave through the tapestry of my recipes (to use a rather worn cliche).

I draw from many different gastronomic traditions, notably the French, who were the first to codify the techniques of cooking. Simply put, there is no modern cooking without some influence from the French, even in places as far flung as Vietnam and Northern Africa. Their influence is global. 

There is also the deep and fruitful influence of the Italians for whom the quality of the ingredient is what guides the preparation. Notably, the cuisine of northern Italy which calls to my love of hearty, cold weather cooking. Piney herbs, buttery cheeses, heart-warming braises and wood-fired cooking really gladdens my soul. I love how the Italians treat good ingredients with reverence; their dishes are simple and never over-wrought. They can take the bare minimum of raw materials like flour, eggs and butter and produce velvety pasta, or make decadent gnocchi from a handful of humble spuds. Who needs a fancy sauce when some quality melted butter and crispy fried sage will do? Bless the Italians.

However,  the tradition that speaks to me with the most gravity, perhaps, the one that touches my heart like no other, comes from the land of my heritage: the British Isles. Some would agree, it is a most unlikely culinary Mecca. 

The collection of islands that we know of as the United Kingdom exist in a sometimes harsh, certainly cold and damp, corner of the North Atlantic. From climatological standpoint, these windswept cliffs, dreary shingle beaches and damp moors don't appear to offer much in the way of gastronomic delights. However, Britain is simply where it's at for me. 

First of all, it is where my family hails from. There is a familiarity here that allows for ease of movement. 

There is a secondary reason that this cuisine fits the bill - Canada, like me, has strong ties to the U.K. through our history, our lineage, our government and even our currency. Unlike the colourful and culturally dynamic city that Toronto is today, in our past, this fair metropolis was a rather dour, protestant, Queen-fearing outpost of a much larger empire. The food that was eaten in this city, right up until the second world war was British food. Like the recipes in the 1877 cookbook, the root of our regional cuisine comes from the United Kingdom. Our local agricultural practices, animal husbandry and wild ingredients suit themselves very well to the unfussy, farm-to-fork approach to cooking that was common in rural Britain for centuries (ironically, the wealthy in Britain's past mostly ate French food with expensive, imported wine, eschewing the humble local recipes). 

There is also another element of British cooking that cannot be denied: it's ability to adapt. Britain's cooking is a dynamic fusion of ingredients and techniques acquired through several centuries of Empire. Canada was (and technically remains), part of this now modern, smaller and more humble commonwealth. As much as I love the Italians cooking and food, this is the one thing that the Brits have over them - an adventurous palate. There is very little that a British diner will not eat (or at least try), but in Italy, tradition is king, sometimes the difference in recipes between neighboring villages is enough to cause insult. I like the wiggle room the British-inspired food provides.

Now, I don't have any intention of cooking a bunch of Lancashire Hotpots and Treacle puddings. I am simply drawing from a tradition of cooking that speaks to me. Mix in some French technique and some sassy interpretations of Italian peasant dishes (think April Bloomfield's Gnudi for example) and we might be on to something. 

I suppose this is just a meandering stream of consciousness for which there really is no beginning and end. I also probably take it for granted that not many people are as deeply interested in such things as I, however, the catharsis of a blog post is therapy well-needed for someone who is risking it all. There will probably be many more riffs on the same subject as the day comes closer to opening the doors to my eating establishment approaches. 

1 comment:

  1. Good luck as you head down this new path!

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